We hear the central tenet of Paul’s gospel message in Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free.”
Hes sees prerequisites of grace as an offense to the cross, invoking slavery language and Old Testament standards like circumcision as antithetical to the gospel message and the cross. He then launches into a tirade on freedom stating that, “…through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Some time ago I was encountered a young man on the phone who had called the church needing to talk with a pastor. We get these requests a lot, and in skepticism I took the phone, waiting to be hit up for money. I will admit I was a bit uncaring in my tone.
His voice was completely unknown to me, and it was clear he was just going down a list of churches in hope that someone…anyone would listen. His voice was shaky and he refused to tell me who he was, but he desperately needed to share his story. Did I have the time, he asked. I reluctantly said yes.
Within a minute I understood this man was in real distress, and he wasn’t hitting me up for money. He needed someone to listen to his pain, and help him.
He described what he called his “expulsion” from his church. The heartbreak and the misery was almost too much to bear. His church family was gone, he said. As a young, single student here in Oklahoma, separated from his family, he felt alone. All he had was his church, and now that was gone.
I was a bit taken aback and needed more information. I encouraged him to come to the church and talk face to face. He declined. So I pressed on the phone: “What happened? Expulsion is quite a word. What are you saying?” I inquired. After much discussion, and trying to calm him enough to share his pain, I came to realize this had all come about because he had gone to the pastor of his church with the fact he was struggling with his sexuality. That was it. He had just entrusted the pastor with his struggle of sexual identity.
The pastor evidently told him never to set foot in the church again. With a shaky voice he asked me point blank, “If I am gay, does God hate me?”
In horror and disbelief I think I yelled into the phone: “God loves all his children, and I can’t believe this pastor of yours! Has he never read the good news of the Bible?”
I think we would all agree his pastor was in the wrong. But it seems symptomatic of our times, when the church at times consumed by sexual ethics, threatens to fragment itself, missing the core message of transformative love and mercy. When did some of our churches lose their way so badly, attempting to become museums for saints rather than hospitals for sinners (which we ALL are…hello!?!)? Have they even read Paul? How is it loving to cut people out of the community who are struggling? Isn’t all of life a struggle?
If we cut off everyone who falls short of God’s glory, we are going to be left with an empty church. And if we cut off people who have not even done anything wrong, but just struggled, or been tempted, or reached out for help, then we are going to clear out our churches in an hour.
I believe the church is being held hostage – by our own own fear. The yoke of this slavery is almost too much to bear. Certainly for this young man, it was strangling their church. Unless we can let go, and allow the transformative nature of God’s grace to truly wash us, God will select us into extinction.
Paul slams his message of freedom home when, in dramatic fashion, he jests: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” If you read Paul closely you discover Paul’s primary concern is knitting up the body of Christ as a relational body, not become a bastion of demonic excommunication.
Freedom in Christ means exactly that. It means not being strangled by the prejudices of the past, but embraced by a new ethic: a Law of Love. Wasn’t that the whole point of the cross? Paul’s point is well taken.
Maybe what we need is a focus on what is essential: that old rugged cross. Some may want to forget that bloody image. But I believe there is something mysterious and essential about the blood of Christ metamorphosing us into the agents of grace and freedom that he needs us to be. We see Christ beat up by humanity, but through that coming to a new expression of grace and freedom.
Only until we realize the depth of human hurts, and confront it head-on, embracing and consuming the body and blood of Christ ourselves, will we come to truly understand what redemption is all about. Transformation isn’t far behind. Freedom lay within. A true freedom that binds hearts and minds in an everlasting mercy and love.